Disclaimer: These kung fu articles are written based on my (Fane Hervey) conversations and training with GrandMaster Chen Fu Sheng, plus my own research, and conclusions from that research with regard to the art of Baji Zhandao. They should not be read as evidence based or historically accurate accounts of the art below. The reality with most kung fu in China is that the real history is long lost and everything else is just conjecture or mythology. The aim of the below article is to shed some perspective on the art as it pertains to the Baji Zhandao system.
Disclaimer: This article is written based on my observations, deductions and conclusions. It could be entirely wrong, but hopefully the correct connections and common sense have prevailed!!! 😉
Baji Quan is an art that is not only little known in the west, it is heavily misunderstood, even in China! The reason I say this is because Baji is often seen as an external martial art, or at least an art that is mainly external. To view the art in this way is to miss a number of important aspects of Baji Quan which make the art a truly complete system.
Baji is often proclaimed as having originated in Hebei province and being nearly 300 years old. What that actually means is that it was first documented as being practiced in Hebei province by Wu Zhong (1712-1802), who was taught Baji Quan (originally termed Bazi Quan, which means ‘rake fist’, and is the same as Shikan ken in Japanese Budo; it was thought too vulgar a sounding name, and so was changed to Baji later) by a wandering monk, who most probably did not come from Hebei.
Today, Baji is known for mainly being practiced in Hebei by a Muslim Chinese community. Most Chinese are Chinese in culture first and then Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Confucianists or Taoist second. Yet, that does not mean that Muslim Chinese would be ready to accept that Baji is originally a Taoist way of moving and cultivating qi. I am not saying that they would claim it was Muslim, but more that it had no or very little connection to Taoism or Buddhism, or if it did have a connection, that connection is now gone. I have also read articles claiming that Baji originated from the Shaolin temple, based on its deep stances and the fact that the Shaolin practice a few frames of Baji traditionally.
Based on the movements of the bear and tiger, Baji Quan is most famous for its powerful, yet simple, combat techniques. The three basic elements of the Baji system are the grounding, crossing, and coiling techniques. The grounding technique emphasizes rotation for balance. One exercise of this technique is the bear posture; by keeping the center of gravity low, one is most stable in terms of defense. The crossing technique sets the body to expand; it emphasizes the use of deflection to gain strength and power. The coiling technique is most effective for deceptive attacks against opponents of all sizes; it allows the practitioner to use the assailant’s power to his/her advantage. The power from this technique is derived from reeling movements similar to those of tai chi.
Personally I have a problem with accepting either of these histories. The main reason is the ancient work of Dao Yin, a collection of illustrated Taoist exercises dating to at least 2,500 years ago. These were exercises to create a healthy body, using Taoist internal alchemy, and in these texts you can plainly see stances identical and unique to Baji Quan, such as Baji Zhan, illustrated in the logo at the top of this website. That and the fact that it was a wandering monk that taught Wu Zhong Baji Quan: Most monks wandering around teaching martial arts to strangers back then were not Buddhist. It was called secrets of the Shaolin for a reason! Although during the days of Wu Zhong, many martial artists were traveling to the Shaolin temples and Wu Zhong may have done this, most Shaolin monks weren’t very forth coming with sharing their martial skills outside of the temple. Granted, he could have been a monk from Emei Shan, but Emei Shan never has laid claim to Baji as far as I know (Plus Emei Shan is a far more considerable distance south of Hebei). It is far more likely that the monk was Taoist, and since he was Taoist and that the origins of the art can be seen in such internal alchemy as the Dao Yin, then I think concluding that there were internal aspects to Baji Quan is by no means a far stretch. However, I would go a step further: I believe, from my teachings from Master Chen and from what he has shared with me, and passed down from his masters, that Baji Quan is in fact predominantly an internal art originating from Wu Dang.
Just as with Ba Gua, Xing Yi and Tai Ji; Ba Ji can, and in my opinion, should be practiced with Nei gong. Master Chen claims that 60% of Baji Quan training should be Nei gong training. It is only through the Internal work that the true power of Baji can be released. This can be illustrated in the story of Ding Faxing, sometimes referred too as the hero of China!
During the Qing dynasty, the Russians were considering an invasion of China. To gauge the amount of resistance they could expect, they decided to send some of their best fighters to China, to challenge some of China’s best warriors. The Russians had a stage set up in Tiananmen Square, and for some weeks not one of the Chinese masters could defeat them. At last Ding Faxiang, the bodyguard of a local government official, and a practitioner of Baji Quan, entered the ring and beat both Russians in a single blow. By this time the emperor was becoming distraught with the whole situation. Upon Ding Faxing’s victory, the emperor decided that from now on, this man would be known as The Hero of China; Ding Faxing. In reality, Ding Faxing only defeated one Russian (the biggest one), with a single blow, but that was enough to put the other Russian fighter off from challenging him, and thereby they both submitted to Ding Faxing. Master Ding was a stay at home bodyguard, which basically meant he would not leave the house of the official he was guarding. This meant he had many hours to whorl away, and he did so with training. As a well known Baji Master, he actually only ever practiced two things; one was standing for 12 hours every day (often split into 3 lots of 4 hour sessions between meals) in Baji Zhan, and the other was 1000 Piqua Slaps on each arm (at this stage Baji and Piqua were still one and the same art, not separated as they are today). This gave him an immense amount of power, and he was not a big man (he is described as small and rotund!) This is exactly what Baji is all about; releasing power in close quarter fighting. The transition of power from the hips to the limbs is often the main focus, yet personally I prefer to work from the lower dan tian, since it is the centre of mass in the body and the place from which you breathe. In order to move effectively from this area, Nei gong has to be practiced, and this not only increases the power out put, but it allows the practitioner to use relaxed power, which traditionally in Chinese wushu is far more practical than strength.
Ding Faxing was not unique in this practice. Most Baji practitioners back then spent the majority of their time practicing Nei gong above Wei gong. It is not popular today because it would be considered dull, boring, uncomfortable and unnecessarily challenging. However, the patience needed to stand still for many hours and just observe one’s surroundings makes for an excellent Bodyguard trait. No wonder that Baji Quan became the main art practiced by the Bodyguards of the Emperor and his officials. It is also not surprising that the Emperors themselves practiced Baji Quan, since to rule well requires great patience. Due to this, Baji has long been considered the highest form of Kung Fu throughout China, and was universally respected until the 1949 revolution. Dispite the obvious connection to Chinese Nationalism, Chairman Mao Ze Dong, saw the incredible value of Baji Quan and so his own bodyguards were taught the art. Not only that, but it is now the staple self defence system for the Chinese Special Forces, Secret Police, and Intelligence Service. Master Chen was a senior instructor in the Chinese Special Forces for a number of years and he spent that time teaching the soldiers Baji Quan. Yet they did not spend the time doing Nei Gong (of course being soldiers and having multiple types of training, with self defence actually being quite low down the list of importance, compared to shooting, fitness, first aid, moving tactically, surviving off the land, etc… nei gong was obviously not going to be something they practiced). The only aspects they were taught from Baji were the applications. This again is the sort of thing that re-affirms to the public and even practitioners that Baji quan is only an external art.
Baji is also popular in other parts of the world, such as Taiwan and Japan. Taiwan’s Baji Quan derives it lineage from the famous Baji Master, Li Shuwen. He was dubbed ‘God of Spear Li’ for his skill with the weapon, and as such Baji has become well known for its spear techniques. But this brings me onto another misconception that many have of Baji quan: spear is not the ultimate weapon for Baji Quan, its just the most famous and probably the most utilized on the battle field. The spear has long trumped the sword in the theatre of war on all continents throughout the ages, so it is no surprise that most Baji trained soldiers would prefer the spear. However, Baji Dao (sabre) and Baji Jian (straight sword) are both incredibly adept weapons, and the Dao may in fact have a history in Baji that was as effective as the spear, if not more so. Master Chen has told me that during conflicts with Japan, there are accounts of platoons of Baji trained soldiers armed with willow leaf Dao, defeating Samurai, where other Chinese troops had been decimated by the Japanese. Looking through Japan-Sino history, I’m assuming he is refering to the difficult invasion of Korea by Japan in 1592-98, where Chinese troops fought Samurai openly on the battlefield. So according to Master Chen at least, there were trained Baji style soldiers fighting for the Chinese 200 years before Wu Zhong, during the Ming dynasty, and in fact 3,000 of the men were termed ‘elite’ troops. Japan had just suffered 100 years civil war, so the Samurai were at their peak in terms of fighting capability, and yet the Chinese soldiers, most of whom were not professional, were able to match them. Whether they knew Baji quan or not, we cannot determine, but to defeat experienced samurai you would have to not fight according to their ways of movement. Baji Dao plays perfectly into that role, being short, hidden and mis-directional, with a weapon that was very similar to a wakizashi (short katana). Whether Baji soldiers existed back then or not is an academic discussion that will probably never be solved (remember that the title Baji didn’t even exist until 300 years later), but certainly the principles of Baji movement would have had to have been alive and well at that stage for the Chinese to have beaten the very capable Japanese forces. There were definitely Baji Soldiers during the first and second Sino-Japanese war, and they were apparently very successful in that as well.
What is also important is the sheer variety of weaponary in Baji Quan. As well as Dao, Jian and Qiang (spear), there is also G’un (staff), Pudao (sabre on a pole-arm), axe, hammer, piecing needles, rope and even a smoking pipe. Combined with Piqua’s MaoDao (horse sabre), this makes for an interesting arsenal, and to claim one was ultimate over the others appears unwarranted. As with all things, the skill in using the weapon was down to the practitioner wielding it. Still the traditional wushu proverb, “For ministers, Tai Chi Quan is used to run the country; for generals, Baji Quan is used to defend the country” would seem to be one that possibly rang true here.
Master Li Shuwen was also famous for saying “I do not know what it’s like to hit a man twice.” By all accounts, Master Li was a very cruel man, and deadly. Yet his quote here interests me, because it demonstrates his confidence in hand to hand fighting, rather than just spear. Master Chen has often mentioned that in Baji Quan you never actually need a weapon, they are already at your disposal within your own body; your hand can be a sword or axe, your arm a staff, your head a hammer, your legs a rope, your fingers a needle, and so on. This leads me on to introduce to you the often not told story of Li Shuwen: After 12 years of training, he wished to test himself, and so he visited the Northern Shaolin Temple at a time when members of the Southern Shaolin were visiting. Legend has it that Master Li challenged the entire temple and defeated them all single handed. It sounds like a Pak Mai fable, but the story does not end there. The Shaolin, angered with the defeat, requested that he return in two weeks for a rematch, this time with weapons. He did, and unarmed, defeated them all a second time! When they asked him to train them, he refused (This again, is why I do not think Baji has any origins in Shaolin). What happened next was even stranger: irritated by this Baji Master, the Shaolin challenged him to recover a sacred fish bone whip that they kept hidden in a cave, surrounded by various booby-traps (very Indiana-Jones-like!) Master Li accepted the challenge and decided to do it at night, because the nei gong he had been practicing had significantly increased his perception at night (yet again why I believe Baji is mainly an internal art). He successfully evaded all the traps, seeing them more clearly at night then he would have during the day and retrieved the whip. The Shaolin were astounded and congratulated him, but when they asked for the whip to be returned, he again refused and left with the whip. Is this a true story? I have no idea, but the Shaolin are still missing the sacred Fish Bone Whip which has not been seen since the 1890s (about the time when Li Shuwen would have visited), and they won’t tell anyone how it went missing…awkward!!!!! 😉 Of course, you have to take many fables, Chinese or otherwise, with a pinch of salt, but they all emminate from a place of truth. Sadly we will never be able to filter the truth from the fable, but it is a great story non-the-less.
There is certainly a Shaolin influence on Modern Baji; the baji fist form ‘Baji Luohan Gong’ is obviously of Shaolin influence and the Shaolin themselves have Baji forms, and this brings me onto the difference between Modern Baji and Ancient Baji. I had the distinct pleasure of visiting and training with Baji Master Zhou Jingxuan of Tianjin in 2014 (sadly he died the following year) who explained quite distinctly the difference between modern and old Baji. Were as the older styles of Li Shuwen and co, would rely on one hit, one kill, Modern Baji would deliver a full on assault of 2-4 continous attacks. This is indeed evident in the very distinctive styles of Hebei and Dongmen Baji Quan. These are the two styles of Baji that I have been taught by Master Chen. Master Chen actually knows 5 different styles of Baji, mainly because he has had 5 different Baji teachers in his life time, all with different lineages. The Hebei style he has taught me, and the other disciples, is a very ancient style that he dates back to at least Master Wu Zhong, if not older, with very distinctive Taoist origns. Whereas the Dongmen style is based after a famous bodyguard of the Emperor Pu Yi and can be seen as a modern take on Baji Quan (with the continuous attacks) being less than a 100 years old.
Regardless, both arts contain similar forms, but they are exercuted in a very different way. Both have Xiao and Da Baji (Small and Big Frame forms respectively) and Liu Da Kai (6 Big Openings). The Hebei style though has Ba Da Zhou (8 Big Gateways), and Hei Hu (Black Tiger). But it is the Hebei style that contains more of the Nei gong and the weaponary, which again leads me to conclude that a lot of this ancient stuff has seemingly be lost in the Baji quan community. That seems like a real shame, because it gives a whole different dimension to the art, that most will never experience.
Fortunately in the system of Baji Zhandao, we do not have to suffer that loss. Baji Quan is the most influencial art on our system, and once you begin practicing it, it is not hard to see why. It is taught in it’s entirity at second black sash level after the Zhandao syllabus has been completed for the first black sash, but forms and techniques are taught throughout the Zhandao syllabus. Baji Quan is highly evident in all the Baji Zhandao forms, including the Zhandao knife form which is heavily influenced by Baji Dao.
I have purposefully not mentioned Piqua much in this article, since there will be a Piqua article later on, but I will leave you with this highly pretentious, but cool Chinese proverb about the two arts: “When Pigua is added to Baji, gods and demons will all be terrified. When Baji is added to Pigua, heroes will sigh knowing they are no match against it.”
Master Chen and Gen Yuan (a Taoist Monk from Yantai), standing in two variations of Baji Zhan up Kunyu Mountain in the middle of winter.
Master Wu LianZhi who is head of the Wu family style of Baji Quan, standing in Baji Zhan.
Li Shuwen: famous Baji Quan master.